These days, J Street, the leftist pro-Israel lobby, is trying to appear business as usual. Following their ad campaign in the newspapers showcasing their support of the peace process and urging leaders to make history, J Street met this week with Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren and with various congressional representatives, in hopes of tightening connections ahead of the November midterm elections.
But ever since the Washington Times exposed the discreet donations made by billionaire George Soros to the organization, the scandal surrounding J Street is only magnifying.
Several reporters got quite upset by the donor revelation, and accused J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami of "lying" when they got denials or vague explanations from him regarding Soros' involvement. Ben-Ami later assumed responsibility for "being less than clear" on the matter.
George Soros’s spokesman Michael Vachon responded to the controversy, saying, "I believe J-Street's ideological opponents, the conservative Israel lobby, seized the opportunity to criticize J-Street over this matter." Ben-Ami said right-wing activists hope "to distract attention from the peace process and to cause problems for their political opponents in the American elections."
But the scandal gained momentum with the next article in the Washington Times that claimed that J Street helped jurist Richard Goldstone, who composed a damning report following Israel's offensive in Gaza in 2008-9, get a meeting on Capitol Hill.
The source of information was said to be former Israeli MK Colette Avital, who allegedly told the reporters in an interview about the J Street-Goldstone ties and said she advised J Street not to foster any relationship with Judge Goldstone following the negative reactions his report on the Gaza war evoked in Israel.
Avital published an angry denial on J Street web site, saying: “I am shocked and appalled to read the account in the Washington Times supposedly reporting on my role with J Street. I am not sure what has happened to the standards of journalism in the United States since the years when I proudly served the Government of Israel as Consul General in New York, but the article in Friday’s paper represents little more than the fabrication of the minds of writers with a political agenda.”
Avital confirmed she spoke to the reporters, and told them she did not resign from J Street and “remains proudly affiliated” with it.
“Further, I made clear that I was, and am, completely unaware of any effort by J Street to facilitate visits by Judge Richard Goldstone to Capitol Hill,” she wrote. “I recommended last November that the organization not have any relationship with the Judge and that they oppose the report. I told the Washington Times clearly that I knew that J Street had no role in arranging the Judge’s visit."
Avital's response fueled the next part of the scandal, when the Washington Times uploaded the audio of the conversation to the web, to prove that Avital was the one to raise the subject of the connection between Goldstone and J Street, saying “when Judge Goldstone came to Washington, [J Street leaders were] suggesting that they might help him set up his appointments on Capitol Hill."
“Before he realized that Colette Avital had been our initial source, Jeremy Ben-Ami told us on the record that J Street's only correspondence with Avital regarding Goldstone's visit was her asking him by e-mail whether J Street was playing any role whatsoever and him telling her no,” one of the reporters, Ben Birnbaum, told Haaretz.
According to the quotations of Ben-Ami, this time he was once again “less than clear” on what J Street actually did with Goldstone.
Goldstone told the Washington Times that he remembers “10 to 12 meetings” with members of Congress, while Ben-Ami said that J Street “believed it to be a good idea for [Goldstone] and for members of Congress to meet personally, but we declined to play a role in hosting, convening or attending any of the meetings." Although he did admit to the Washington Times that his staffers contacted some Congressmen with regard to Goldstone visit.
Basically, for an organization that claims to represent the moderate voice of the Jewish population in the United States, there should be nothing wrong in at least contemplating Goldstone’s report, as did some left-wingers in the U.S. and even Israel. There were people who rejected parts of it and criticized its one-sidedness, while calling to carefully check some other parts.
And seemingly there is nothing preventing a leftist organization from receiving donations from leftist donors. For some, Soros’ name might be a sufficient reason to cut ties with J Street because of his confrontation with AIPAC and his sharp criticism of Israeli policies. But J Street's “less than clear” explanation regarding the issue is the reason even the organization's most stringent supporters are raising their eyebrows.
It’s not unusual for a new organization to flip flop on some controversial issues, trying to find the right balance between their vision and the need to satisfy the mainstream and not be marginalized.
On the one hand, the Democratic Party majority in both houses of Congress presented a unique opportunity for J Street to find supporters on the Hill.
On the other hand, with a right-wing Israeli government that initially aggressively rejected J Street's agenda, they had a problem redefining the term “pro-Israel” and presenting themselves as such in Israel. This need to balance in a problematic environment probably brought on their recent evasiveness and eventually, the current scandal. The approaching elections probably didn’t help much either.
J Street needs to make a clear decision – if they want to be truly inclusive, as they claim to be – they shouldn’t be afraid to be so, despite the price they may have to pay. By continuing their current modus operandi – trying to dodge controversy - they are actually creating more controversies and might lose credibility even among their left-wing supporters. If they want to become a unique voice, they should say: “We do not agree, but we listen to all voices - and not under the table.”
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